Nature on Campus, Early April 2016

Compiled by Eamon Corbett

It’s springtime, the birds are singing, and so it’s the perfect time for a Nature on Campus update that doubles as a birdsong ID guide! Most of the notable sightings of the past few weeks have been singing birds, so I’ve added links to recordings of each from the Macaulay Library at Cornell. Have a listen, and you’ll get an intro to the most common sounds of spring on campus!

One note: for many species, the song that they use to attract a mate is different from the call that they use to communicate. The Cornell page has different sections for each, so I’ve noted which is more likely to be heard at Harvard for each species.

Red-tailed Hawks are still nesting on the Holyoke/Smith Center, on a ledge on the top right corner when looking from Mt. Auburn Street (see the photo below). Their calls are a loud “Velociraptor screech” that is commonly dubbed over videos of flying bald eagles in commercials to make the eagles sound more impressive and patriotic. Hear for yourself: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-tailed_Hawk/sounds

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Probably the most unusual bird sighting from the past couple weeks was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a type of woodpecker, reported by Caitlin Andrews and Jenni Haydek at JFK Park on March 31st. They aren’t common on campus, but it’s still worth keeping an ear out for their distinctively irregular “morse code” drumming sounds: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Yellow-bellied_Sapsucker/sounds.

One of the most impressive songsters in the area is the Northern Mockingbird—one was seen on Dunster Street on April 13th. They mimic other birds in their song, and repeat one phrase four or five times before switching to a new one: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Mockingbird/sounds

Often as loud as the mockingbird and much more colorful, Northern Cardinals have been a vocal presence on campus lately, with reports from Kirkland courtyard on April 13th and 16th and near Memorial Church on the 15th. They have a characteristic whistled song (which both males and females sing), and a sharp chip call: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/sounds

Another reddish songbird is the House Finch, which has a pretty, warbling song, and can often be heard near the Holyoke Center or on Dunster Street, as it was on the 6th, the 15th, and the 16th (and probably other times too): https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/House_Finch/sounds

Another very common species with a melodic song is the American Robin. No doubt most students would recognize the red-chested bird by sight, but the sound is equally distinctive once you learn it. They are frequently found on the ground in the yard, or in grassy lawns or fruiting trees around campus. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Robin/sounds

The Blue Jay, while a striking bird, has a less beautiful sound: a loud screeched “jaaaaay”: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Blue_Jay/sounds. They were seen and heard by the Science Center on the 5th of April, at the MAC quad on the 6th, and elsewhere on campus the past week.

Uncommon species like the sapsucker aside, most woodpeckers on campus are Downy Woodpeckers, which have two different identifying sounds: one their drumming for food, and the other a “whinny” call that is usually the first sign that one is in the area: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Downy_Woodpecker/sounds. One was in Tercentenary Theater on April 9th, and they are often seen in the trees in from of the Museum of Natural History.

White-breasted Nuthatches are also tree-climbers, but unlike woodpeckers they can climb both up and down trees. They were seen in the Old Yard on the 5th and the 6th of April, and make a distinctive nasal call: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-breasted_Nuthatch/sounds.

There was a Wild Turkey on JFK Street on April 12th. It was a female, so unlike to be vocalizing loudly, but it’s worth keeping an ear out for the males, which do actually make a “gobbling” sound: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wild_Turkey/sounds

American Goldfinches are molting into their colorful spring plumage, and there was one flying over Kirkland Courtyard on April 16th. They have a very complex song, with warbling and chattering phrases, but more often heard is their distinctive 4-note flight call: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Goldfinch/sounds.

Finally, so as to avoid having an exclusively bird-related email, there was an Eastern Cottontail rabbit on Winthrop Street on April 16th, and my first butterfly of spring, a Cabbage White, in the yard on the 17th.

Enjoy the weather and the returning flora and fauna!

Nature on Campus, January 20th-February 20th

Compiled by Eamon Corbett

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Photo Credit: Robert Hogg

It’s been a while since we last did a Nature on Campus update, so there’s a lot to report! Here are some of the nature highlights of the first few weeks of the semester:

Marsupials are usually more associated with Australia than Boston, but we do have one species in the area: Robert Hogg and Lorena Benitez found and photographed a Virginia Opossum on February 5th in the Quad. There aren’t a lot of mammal species that can be seen on campus, so it’s great to add a new one to the list! Check out Robert’s photo above. 

The more common group of mammals, the placentals, is still well represented, with Eastern Cottontail rabbits and Gray Squirrels outside, House Mice inside, and Brown Rats both out and (probably) in.

Before the cold snap last weekend there was a week where it really felt like spring, and the birds seem to have been fooled too: an American Robin was singing near Adams House on February 4th, the warbling song of a House Finch could be heard by the Holyoke Center on the 12th, and there are scattered reports of singing Northern Cardinals.

They aren’t the only ones starting the breeding season early: the resident Red-tailed Hawks have been spotted building a nest on the back of the Holyoke/Smith Center! From Mt. Auburn Street, look to the top right corner of the building to see if you can see them on the ledge above the second-to-right window in the top row. And keep your ears peeled for their distinctive “velociraptor scream” calls, which are so dramatic that they are often dubbed over patriotic footage of bald eagles to make the eagles seem cooler.

Jack Stevenson reports a different bird of prey, a probable Cooper’s Hawk, eating some small animal in the Kirkland Courtyard on February 15th

Other, smaller resident birds have also been common over the past few weeks: A fruiting tree in Randolph (Adams House) courtyard held a colorful contingent of 2 Northern Cardinals and 2 Blue Jays on January 24th, and more jays and some House Finches on the 26th. Jeff Ott reports a White-breasted Nuthatch in the MAC quad on the same day. There were Black-capped Chickadees in front of Lehman Hall on Feb 4th, and a Downy Woodpecker in front of the Geological Museum on the 9th.

Thanks to everyone who sent in sightings, and as always you can report any wildlife sightings to harvardnaturalists@gmail.com!

Belle Isle Marsh and Revere Beach

by Corey Husic  | photographs by Phoebe Thompson, Jarrod Wetzel-Brown, & Corey Husic

Most people in the Northeast don’t get excited about traveling to the beach in February, but five of us gathered on the chilly morning of February 6th to do just that! After a 45-minute ride on the subway to Suffolk Downs station, we crossed the street and arrived at our first destination: Belle Isle Marsh Reservation-a salt marsh habitat situated just north of Boston.

The paths were still covered with slushy snow from the storm on Friday, and snow and ice constantly fell from the trees and bushes around us. As we walked down the path, we heard the chips of Song Sparrows and the soft notes of American Tree Sparrows. We got a few glimpses of the tree sparrows as they flew ahead of us in the brush. Phoebe spotted a Northern Mockingbird that was enjoying itself in a fruit-filled sumac tree along with some boisterous European Starlings. As we moved away, a small group of wintering American Robins flew into the same sumac to feast on the nutritious drupes.

We spotted lots of tracks in the snow, mostly of the humans and dogs that walked this path before us. However, we also spotted these tiny tracks that might have been from a Meadow Jumping Mouse. Note the mark left by the tail dragging through the snow.

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We climbed up the observation tower and scanned the marsh. We found Buffleheads, American Black Ducks, Mallards, and Red-breasted Mergansers in the water. In all directions we could see Red-tailed Hawks-some were perched while others were in the air soaring or hunting.

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We even took some time to observe the low-flying planes headed to Logan Airport.

 

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From Belle Isle Marsh, it was just a short walk up the road to Revere Beach. Upon arriving at the partially snow-covered beach, we took a short break to pet an adorable Sheltie puppy that was bouncing and pouncing and racing its way through the snow. After our puppy fix, we wandered down to the water where we found a bunch of gulls. This provided an opportunity to point out key identifying characteristics of the three common species of gulls present: Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed. I was probably more interested in the gulls than were the other participants, so we moved on towards the jetty.

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When we rounded the corner of the beach, I spotted two blobs perched on a rock offshore. Seals! Everyone was able to get good looks of these Harbor Seals through binoculars. We watched as one seal desperately attempted to wobble its way onto a rock and eventually succeeded (sort of…). After a bit of scanning, we found a total of four seals on the emergent rocks.

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We spotted these two Harbor Seals just off the shore! (photo taken through binoculars)

This rocky area was also full of birds! A number of elegantly plumaged Common Eiders loitered on and around the rocks and a few White-winged Scoters sat a bit farther offshore. Off to our right, several Surf Scoters sat in the sheltered cove. These birds were accompanied by Red-throated and Common Loons that dove so frequently it was difficult to get everyone on them!

Once we were satisfied with our views of the seals and sea ducks, we made our way to the Revere Beach station and rode the T back to campus. Thanks to Amy, Emma, Jarrod, and Phoebe (from Bowdoin College!) for joining me on this beautiful day!

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If you’re interested in all of the bird species we saw, check out our eBird checklists:

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S27339655 – Belle Isle Marsh

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S27339820 – Revere Beach

Boston Harbor Island Trip

By Jeff Ott

The Harvard Naturalist Club recently (ok, not super recently as I’ve been sitting on these photos for a while now) took a trip to Spectacle Island in the Boston Harbor archipelago. This trip was filled with history, nature, and the Boston skyline.

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Leaving the City on a Hill

We were lucky enough to have some members of the Ocean Science Club join us. Here is a picture of the whole crew.IMG_4903

On our way to the top of Spectacle Island Hill, we had a couple close calls with nature.  We narrowly avoided potentially fatal attacks from both the dangerous woolly bear caterpillar and the world’s largest (potential hyperbole) praying mantis.

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The deadly woolly bear

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Thank goodness for the impenetrable denim

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The closest call of all

After our treacherous climb to the top of Spectacle Island hill, our grit was rewarded with the best view of the day (I’m talking about the skyline, not the striking male figure that your eyes may have been drawn to).IMG_4917

The trip was deemed a marked success by all in attendance, and plans to return to Spectacle Island are definitely in the works!

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Our fair island, and the Boston skyline.

Thanks for reading!

-Jeff

Night Hike at Middlesex Fells

by Corey Husic

On the evening of December 15th—amidst final exams and term papers—Harold Eyster and I led a trip to Middlesex Fells, a state park situated just north of Boston. The naturalist club had led several trips to the Fells before, but this was the first time we would be exploring the park at night. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect: maybe we’d hear an owl, or perhaps we’d encounter some nocturnal mammals or nefarious humans.

Several of us gathered in Harvard Square, and then rode the T all the way to the Oak Grove station. From here, we walked two blocks north to the trailhead. We clambered up the slope and some rocks and soon found ourselves gazing at the bright city skyline to our south. We gazed at constellations like Orion and Cassiopeia—features of the night sky barely visible back on campus.

We made our way back to the main trail and walked deeper into the park. Eamon Corbett had brought along a makeshift pitfall trip designed for the live capture of insects and small mammals. Eamon, Michael Genecin, and Sarah Ward dug a small hole for the trap, and covered the top with leaf litter hoping to fool an unsuspecting mouse or vole.

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digging a pitfall trap (photo: Jarrod Wetzel-Brown)

 

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the pitfall trap crew (photo: Jarrod Wetzel-Brown)

Once the trap was in place, we continued down the trail looking and listening for wildlife. The woods were extremely quiet-nary an owl or insect decided to vocalize.

We soon found ourselves in front of another rocky hill, so we climbed to the top, of course. This peak provided a view of Melrose, Massachusetts in full Christmas decoration glory. Two hundred feet down the slope from where we sat, one particularly bright holiday display was blasting tunes from the Jackson 5 Christmas Album. Even from this distance, we could hear the lyrics so well that some members of our group were prompted to sing along. Now the resident owls were sure to remain silent.

We elected to turn back, taking one final stop to enjoy a view of the city. At this vantage point, we stood in a circle and wrapped our arms around each other singing along to Adele’s Hello. More like Middlesex Feels.

Invigorated, we started on the last leg of our hike back. Some observant members of the group spotted a bunch of moths on a decaying tree. They turned out to be Winter Moths (Operophtera brumata), a nonnative, invasive insect that has become common across the northern United States. Finally some wildlife, albeit in the form of a small, plain, brown moth…

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checking out some moths (photo: Jarrod Wetzel-Brown)

Eamon checked his pitfall trap before we left the park. Not even a confused centipede. Oh well.

We found our way back to the Orange Line, and unlike our last trip to the Fells, everyone in our group made it onto the same train…

Although we didn’t see much on this first ever night hike, it was a fun night of constellations, gaudy Christmas decorations, some brown moths, and Adele. The best kind of study break from final exams.

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Thanks for taking pictures, Jarrod!

Snowy Owl at Belle Isle!

By Eamon Corbett

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What are these happy naturalists pointing at? Read on!

On December 12th, during finals week, 5 of us headed to Belle Isle Marsh Reservation in search of one of the most spectacular animals in Boston: a Snowy Owl. Snowies often hang out in the vicinity of Logan Airport in the winter (the treeless environment resembles their tundra breeding grounds), and there had been a number of sightings of one at Belle Isle. On this unseasonably warm December day, we were hoping to track it down.

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Belle Isle

Construction on the T slowed us down but we arrived at the marsh mid-afternoon, and started birding the entry road and nearby marsh. Chickadees and Song Sparrows were common, and we came across a big flock of American Tree Sparrows, with their crisp red-and-gray plumage.

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American Tree Sparrow

We started scanning for the owl from the main observation tower, which has a view of the entire marsh. Gulls and geese were common, and there were a variety of ducks as well: Buffleheads, Red-breasted Mergansers, American Black Ducks and Mallards.

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Scanning the marsh

We didn’t see any owls immediately, but did spot a different white bird in the marsh: an immature Little Blue Heron, not yet old enough to be blue, and quite unusual for the area. It had been seen a Belle Isle recently by others, so we were happy to spot it.

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Little Blue Heron!

We continued down into the marsh, but had no further success owl-wise, so we searched the meadow briefly, finding a singing Mockingbird and a Red-tailed Hawk. At that point a big group of birders walked by to the marsh, and we asked what they had seen.

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Redtail

“Well, there’s a Snowy Owl on top of that building,” was the reply.

And there was! On a distant hillside there was a large brick building (a school, probably), and we looked through a telescope to see an unmistakeable white blob perched atop its chimney!

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See it? No?

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Right there on top of that building…

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Closer…

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Closer…

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Ta da!

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Hedwig!

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Everyone was excited

It was a very distant owl, but it was definitely there, and we climbed the observation tower to get a (slightly) closer look. It watched from its lofty perch, bringing a touch of the arctic to otherwise balmy Boston, until the sun began to set and we headed back into the thick of exams.

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Another great trip!

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Harvard Yard Tree Trip

By Michael Genecin

It has been a while since this trip happened, but hey, better late than never! It turned out to be a really fun trip and we might be doing a few more when the weather warms up this spring, so keep an eye out if you are interested.

In mid-November, I led a ‘tree trip’ around the yard. The idea was to find trees around campus that we could climb, learn about them, and maybe try to find some cool things up in the trees. Though the trees had already lost most of their leaves, the weather was just cool enough for a sweater, and it turned out to be perfect day for some climbing.

We started off at the barker center, climbing an oak species (we never settled on exactly which, because all of the leaves had fallen and been raked away). It had large boughs, so we thought it would be an easy climb because it would be easier to balance, but it turned out the bigger boughs are actually harder climb because they are harder to grasp and there is usually more space between them. Only a couple of us made it up past the first bough. From up in the tree, we talked about oaks, some of the different species and where they could be found, and tried to guess which species this one was.

 

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Things were getting romantic up in the tree

 

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View from the top of the oak!

Then we moved into the yard and climbed the yews next to memorial church. We couldn’t get very high up because they weren’t tall trees, but they were fun because they had so many tightly packed branches going in different directions you could climb all around in them with ease. In terms of the lessons learned in this part of the trip, people did not find yews so interesting, so we mostly talked about the dawn redwoods across the path. These redwoods were once thought to have been extinct since the Mesozoic Era until a small population was found in a remote valley in China in 1944. Naturalists at Harvard’s very own Arnold Arboretum brought seeds back to the U.S. to begin growth trials, and the tree has now been reintroduced in several parts of China and is a popular ornamental. We decided not to climb these historic, once-endangered trees.

We then moved on to some of the trees in front of Canaday; the big central one being a crab apple and the others we could not identify without their leaves, though we suspected them of being some type of chestnut. We climbed these and talked about the birds we saw around Canaday for just a few minutes before we were kicked out by a freshman proctor who didn’t want us to hurt ourselves on her turf.

Finally, we wrapped up the trip by watching the sun set from the observatory on top of the science center. We even decided we would try to make watching the sunset a new weekly tradition of the club!

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Sunset on the roof!